Tag Archives: String Band

Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott: Memories and Moments

TimOBrienDarrellScott_MemoriesAndMomentsEffortless country, folk and bluegrass duets

It’s one thing to be a world class musician, but applying that talent to spontaneous performance in a studio setting is something else entirely. For their second formal collaboration, Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott perform rather than produce – the recordings catch them in the act of making music, rather than making a record. Sitting face-to-face for most of these tracks, they pick and sing for one another rather than for the microphones, and the results contain the essence of duet music. There’s an interplay between their instruments and voices, provocations made and instantly answered, that are often still-born or sterilized by the process of recording. But such is the nature of their collaboration, which began with 2000’s Real Time and which grew in countless career intersections.

Last year’s We’re Usually a Lot Better Than This, showed how quickly and easily the duo could come together in live performance, and how the element of surprise could spur great stage performances. Their latest, built from new solo material, a co-write and a few covers, shows how empathetic each is to the other’s instrumental and vocal traits. There are few others who  could pull together such performances this nuanced and riveting in just three days. O’Brien and Scott sound as if they’re singing well-worn folk songs they’d been touring for years, when in fact the original material is new. They conjure George Jones’ spirit with their harmony runs on the possum’s sad-sack “Just One More Time” and are joined by John Prine for his own “Paradise.” Waiting thirteen years is one way to avoid the sophomore jinx; hopefully these two will get to junior year a bit more quickly. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

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The Deadly Gentlemen: Roll Me, Tumble Me

DeadlyGentlemen_RollMeTumbleMeAcoustic string band that goes beyond Bluegrass convention

This Boston-based quintet sports a traditional string band lineup of guitar, banjo, fiddle, mandolin and bass, and though that adds up to the acoustics of a bluegrass band, their original material is something distinct from that of the typical festival players. The differences likely stem from the varied background of the band members: fiddler Mike Barnett, bassist Sam Grisman (son of mandolinist David) and mandolinist Dominick Leslie had traditional childhood immersions in acoustic music, while banjoist Greg Liszt had a dual life as a picker (with the Crooked Still) and a scientist (including a Ph.D. in molecular biology from MIT), and guitarist Stash Wyslouch followed a route through rock and heavy metal before settling into country and bluegrass.

The band’s moved closer to traditional song structures over their five years and three records, but the remnants of earlier experiments are still to be heard. Their harmonies, for example, range from traditional high-low bluegrass singing to unison passages they’ve characterized as “gang vocals.” There’s also a helping of country that suggests harmony acts like Alabama and the Statler Brothers. There’s a hopefulness to their tone, even when singing lyrics of failed love, buoyed by rolling banjo, sawed fiddle and fluttering lines of mandolin. The tempos leave little time for dwelling on failure; “Bored of the Raging” emerges from a crawl to a run, and “A Faded Star” waves off inevitability in favor of the changeable present moment.

In contrast, the passing years of “Now is Not the Time” and stagnant living of “Working” seem to spark genuine worries (though the latter does manage a rare use of the word “wankfest” in a song lyric). The band’s hopefulness is also interrupted by the dichotomies of “Beautiful’s the Body” and “It’ll End Too Soon,” each serving up conflicting impulses and no clear answers. Greg Liszt’s songwriting straddles portrait and poetry, drawing characters and situations that layer abstraction on concrete foundations. His optimistic joys and thoughtful concerns give the album a believable outline whose emotional details are inked in by the band’s talented and soulful musicianship. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

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The Howlin’ Brothers: Howl

HowlinBrothers_HowlUnabashed bluegrass, blues, Dixieland and more

This three piece (Ben Plasse – upright bass and banjo; Ian Craft – fiddle and banjo; Jared Green – guitar and harmonica; all three on vocals) performs its mountain bluegrass, Dixieland and late-night blues with a busker’s verve. Plasse’s bass holds down the rhythmic core on many numbers, but gives way to light drumming (courtesy of Gregg Stacki) for a few, such as the second-line shuffle, “Gone.” Brass and clarinet add a flashy touch to “Delta Queen,” but it’s the group’s unabashed, live-wire energy that draws your ear. The trio’s fifth album mixes a wide variety of originals, including fiddle tunes, family-styled harmonies and driving banjo folk,  with covers of John Hartford’s “Julia Belle Swain” and Otis “Big Smokey” Smothers’ raucous “My Dog Can’t Bark.” The strings are augmented by touches of whistling, kazoo, wordless vocalizations, and a few guests – including Warren Haynes on slide guitar. These live-in-the-studio sessions capture the spontaneity of group performance and the pull of a street corner show. [©2013 Hyperbolium]

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The Twilite Broadcasters: The Trail of Time

Tight pre-Bluegrass country harmonizing

This old-timey North Carolina trio (Mark Jackson on guitar, Adam Tanner on mandolin and fiddle, and Duane Anderson on stand-up bass) return with their second album of early-country inspired harmonizing. As on their first album, 2010’s Evening Shade, the singing brings to mind the Delmores and Louvins, and the song list recounts several of the brothers’ tunes alongside traditional songs and later country works. Jackson and Tanner can each sing lead, but it’s the blending of their voices that creates the brightest sparks. The solo verses of “There Stands the Glass,” for example, haven’t the searing quality of Webb Pierce’s hit, but the tight chorus harmonies provide a moving refrain. Tanner’s playing is lively on the original instrumental “North Buncombe Gallop,” Bill Monroe’s “Land of Lincoln” and Arthur Smith’s “Fiddler’s Dream,” and he adds short solos to several other tracks. It’s no surprise that the Delmore and Louvin compositions, including the former’s “Lead Me” and the latter’s “Lorene,” best fit the duo’s harmonizing. This is a homespun collection whose harmonies you could imagine the Broadcasters singing on your own back porch. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

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The Greencards: The Brick Album

Genre-blending Austin-based acoustic string band

If you imagine an intersection where the traditions of country and bluegrass meet the inventions of newgrass and the changes that swept through British contemporary folk, you’ll have a sense of the music spun by the Greencards. Their songs feature the tight harmonies of country and bluegrass, the sophistication of jazz, and the pluck of folk. As on 2009’s Fascination, the band traverses numerous styles from song to song, but unlike the contrasting colors of their previous outing, here they explore varying shades of their progressive string-band sound. The opening “Make it Out West,” though sung about modern contemporary emigration to the coast, still manages to conjure pickaxes and transcontinental rails with its rhythm. Similar   changes are also heard in the jig “Adelaide,” while the album’s second instrumental, “Tale of Kangario,” hints at South American styles.

Vocalist Carol Young moves fluidly from country to jazz to pop, occasionally transitioning within a single song. The bass and plucked mandolin of “Mrs. Madness” provides a ‘30s supper club setting for the verses, slides into contemporary harmonies on the chorus and adds modernly picked fills. The longing of “Faded” and harmony blend of “Naked on the River” lean more toward pop harmony groups like the Rescues than to traditional bluegrass or country, but the mandolin (courtesy of guest Sam Bush), fiddle (from recent addition Tyler Andal) and guitar (from the band’s other recent addition, Carl Miner) keep the song anchored to the group’s roots. Vince Gill adds a duet vocal on “Heart Fixer,” and several dozen fans star as financial supporters, with their names emblazoned on the covers.

You can imagine several of these songs turning up on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy or another lovingly curated television show’s soundtrack. The Greencards have combined their diverse musical interests in a showcase that highlights the ingredients without sounding forced. They sound modern, but still rooted, a group whose acoustic framework is still recognizable to bluegrass, country and string band fans, but one that could also appeal to contemporary pop listeners. [©2011 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Heart Fixer
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Black Prairie: Feast of the Hunters’ Moon

Three Decemberists (plus two) add folk, gypsy and classical flavors

This release debuts the collaboration of three Decemberists (instrumentalist Chris Funk, bassist Nat Query and accordionist Jenny Conlee) and two players from the Portland scene (violinist/vocliast Annalisa Tornfelt and guitarist Jon Neufeld). Though the instruments are mostly common to Sugar Hill’s bluegrass and string bands, the results are quite different. Tornfelt’s violin slashes and haunts and together with Chris Funk’s bazouki and Conlee’s accordion adds gypsy touches to several songs. Tornfelt can also bow with the ferocity of a classical player and with Conlee and Neufelt creates a fetching invitation to the floor in “Tango Oscuro.” Two traditional numbers (the moody “Red Rocking Chair” and the atmospheric closer, “Blackest Crow”) are interspersed among mostly instrumental originals. The group gets downright rootsy on “Home Made Lemonade,” but it’s one of only a few tunes that will remind you this is released by Sugar Hill. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

MP3 | Red Rocking Chair
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Megan Lynch: Songs the Brothers Warner Taught Me

Vocalist and acoustic duo reanimate jazz-age cartoon classics

Warner Brother’s cartoons – the classics drawn in the 30s, 40s and 50s – connect to modern-day audiences with surprising timelessness. Surprising, because if you look beneath the frenetic humor, you’ll find period details threaded throughout. Nowhere were early twentieth-century totems used more regularly than in the soundtracks. Composer Carl Stalling regularly quoted Tin Pan Alley songs in his background scores with a literality that vexed his animators, and selected songs were sung by the characters. Even then, these classics were typically reduced to a line or two that highlighted an action or emotion, rather than sung all the way through. Most of the songs, as songs, remain a mystery to even ardent Warner Brothers’ fans.

This disc features new performances of a dozen songs sung or played in classic Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes shorts, opening with the memorable “Hello Ma Baby.” Famously sung by Michigan J. Frog in “One Froggy Evening,” Lynch expands on the Jolson-esque chorus quoted in the cartoon with the classic’s ragtime verses. Perhaps even more iconic is “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” the title of which was often used as shorthand for a quick exit. Here the lyric is revealed as a post-nuptial love song whose expectation of wedding-night bliss is surprisingly scandalous. Other tunes, such as “It’s Magic” and “It Can’t Be Wrong,” were used mostly as mood melodies, so hearing them sung is like being introduced rather than reintroduced.

Lynch is a talented vocalist who uses portamenti and trills to conjure the jazz age. The acoustic accompaniment, including lazy fiddle solos, chipper ukulele and haunting turns on the saw give these songs a chance to unfold, and separated from the frenzy of a cartoon they unfold and flower. Still, when anyone croons “Someone’s Rocking My Dreamboat,” it’s hard not to imagine Bugs Bunny floating idly to a South Pacific island in (the un-PC) “Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips” or carried in a barrel in “Gorilla My Dreams.” Lynch is joined in reanimating these classics by the Tony Marcus (guitar, mandolin, fiddle) and Robert Armstrong (national steel guitar, banjo, accordion, ukulele, saw) of the Cheap Suit Serenaders, with appearances by Steven Strauss (bass, ukulele) and Brandon Essex (bass). [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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Twilite Broadcasters: Evening Shade

Joyous pre-Bluegrass brotherly harmonizing

This North Carolina duo, Mark Jackson and Adam Tanner, sing the sort of two-part pre-Bluegrass harmonies that were popularized by the Osborne, Delmore, Monroe, Louvin and Everly brothers. The duo sings both happy and sad songs, but always with a sweetness that expresses the sheer joy of harmonizing. Accompanied by guitar (Jackson), mandolin and fiddle (both Tanner), the arrangements are simpler than a string band’s, with the guitar keeping time and the mandolin vamping before stepping out for relaxed solos. The instruments provide a platform for the voices, rather than racing to the front of the stage.

The duo performs songs written or made famous by the Delmores (“Southern Moon”), Everlys (“Long Time Gone”), Jim & Jesse (“Stormy Horizons”), and others, like Buck Owens & Don Rich (“Don’t Let Her Know”) who latched onto close harmonies that weren’t always high and lonesome. The waltzing invitation of “What Would You Give in Exchange For Your Soul” is sung in both harmony and counterpoint, and the oft-recorded “Midnight Special” sounds fresh and enthusiastic. Tanner’s mandolin steps forward for the instrumental “Ragtime Annie,” and he saws heavily on the fiddle for a cover of Doug Kershaw’s “Louisiana Man” and the celtic-influenced “Salt River.”

The public domain selections include a full-throated take on “More Pretty Girls Than One” (popularized and often credited to Woody Guthrie) on which the slow tempo draws out the chorus harmonies and begs the listener to find a place to sing along. Jackson and Tanner are fine instrumentalists, and winningly, they don’t hot-pick here with the fervor of bluegrass. Instead, they provide themselves tasteful support that leaves the spotlight on their voices and songs, and gives the record a warm, invitingly down-home feel. [©2010 hyperbolium dot com]

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